Darkest Hour: Overrated

Directed by Joe Wright
Perfect World Pictures, 125 minutes, PG-13

Back in 2002, the BBC declared Winston Churchill (1874-1965) the greatest Briton of all time. He was certainly omnipresent—famed orator, Nobel Prize winning author, military man, and the holder of just about every governmental office imaginable, including two stints as Prime Minister (1940-45; 1951-55). Maybe that's why several British audiences gave a standing ovation to Darkest Hour. I, like many others, have reservations about such unbridled hero worship, but I have none about Darkest Hour. It is like Churchill himself—puffed up on its own perceived importance. I say this even though Gary Oldman won the Golden Globe's Best Actor honors for portraying Churchill, and even though some consider this film to be a potential dark horse to win the Best Picture Oscar.

Fiddlesticks, say I! But let's give the film credit for doing a decent job with the situation that gives the film its title. (Churchill never actually uttered that phrase.) It covers just 2 ½ weeks of Churchill's time as Prime Minister—from Neville Chamberlain's resignation following Hitler's invasion of the Low Countries on May 10, 1940, to the successful evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk, France on June 4. It was an extraordinary moment in history, one in which many British leaders thought the nation's only chance for survival was to sue for peace. Churchill emerged as the perfect wartime leader. He was prescient in warning the government of Hitler's evil intentions, dogged in his resolve, and brilliant in his ability to craft inspirational speeches. As Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) says near the end of Darkest Hour, "He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle."

This film also looks good. Scenes in the underground war rooms, Parliament, and London streets are bathed in sufficiently drab English hues that enhance the possibility of impending apocalypse, and the film's closing sequence—though cinematic hyperbole—is a stunner. Director Joe Wright also uses effective slow motion street tableaux to capture emotions ranging from fear and dread to resolve and defiance. The overall gloom is further deepened by physical allusions to Churchill's personal financial woes and by the deep-furrowed petty wrangling of Parliamentarians engaged much in political jockeying as dealing the dangers of the moment. I also credit the film for not dodging the possibility that Churchill was an alcoholic. (Franklin Roosevelt certainly thought so and used advisor Harry Hopkins to keep Churchill at arm's length.) It even invites us to question Churchill's past judgment (the bungled World War One Gallipoli campaign) and present (the decision to sacrifice men deployed a Calais).

For all of that, Darkest Hour is at heart a cinematic look at the Great Man Theory of history. Exaggeration, invention, a histrionic musical score, and the dumbed-down fawning of those who sense they are in the presence of a demigod ultimately undermine the power of the visuals. The fawners include Churchill's deputy, Anthony Eden (Samuel West), his young secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), and his long-sacrificing wife Clementine (Kristin Scott-Thomas doing a Sian Phillips imitation). Never mind that Eden was actually among those who thought Britain needed to consider throwing in the towel, that Layton didn't have a brother at Dunkirk and wouldn't be Churchill's secretary until 1941, or that Clementine was equally invested in Winston's legacy. Nor is there evidence that Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) or Halifax were plotting a party coup against Churchill. There is one scene so preposterous that it's Disneyesque on the fantasy scale. Churchill was many things, but a man of the people he was not. He did not, as the film would have it, bolt from his limousine and jump on the Underground to solicit the views of ordinary Brits, trade Macaulay passages with a black passenger, and whip the subway car into bellicose resolve. This is ahistorical nonsense served with a PC twist.

Just to be clear, my brief against Darkest Hour isn't rooted in anti-Churchill views. To repeat an earlier point, Churchill was a valiant wartime leader. Faced with the specter of fascism, better that the leader be a tiger than a Teddy bear. The film works best when Churchill is self-assured, arrogant, even  crude (though Oldman seemed too much like LBJ with a cigar in those scenes). I was not enamored of attempts to soften Churchill's gruffness with avuncular interludes in his dealings with Layton. At times, you might also think that Churchill was the one with a stammer, not King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn).

Mainly I don't see what all the fuss is about. If you've seen Season One of The Crown, you have witnessed a far superior portrayal of Churchill—that of John Lithgow. Indeed, Jeremy Northam's Eden was also a better performance, as was Jared Harris of George VI and Harriet Walker's Clementine. Joe Wright's Darkest Hour looks good, but it tries so hard to cover all the bases that it often feels like it's more about 21st century concerns than mid-20th century perils.

Rob Weir

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